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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Secret Ballot (2001)

"I must vote, you must vote, everyone must vote."
- Election Agent (Nassim Abdi)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: February 25, 2003

Stars: Nassim Abdi, Cyrus Abidi, Youssef Habashi, Farrokh Shojaii, Gholbahar Janghali
Director: Babak Payami

MPAA Rating: G
Run Time: 01h:44m:55s
Release Date: January 07, 2003
UPC: 043396092204
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B+A-B+ D

DVD Review

I don't know about you, but when I think Iran, I think: comedy! You shouldn't let news clips of rabid mullahs or axis-of-evil rhetoric put you off of this deft little movie, however, which offers a revealing view of rural Iranian society in a story that has the intelligence about the political process of films like The Great McGinty and The Candidate.

It is Iran's quadrennial election day, and a great percentage of the population has absolutely no chance of making it to a polling place. Election agents, therefore, are deployed throughout the countryside, to allow the citizens to vote—in some metaphorical sense, the mountain is coming to Mohammed. The story begins with the arrival of an unnamed election agent (Nassim Abdi), who raises eyebrows by virtue of her gender; her escort through her designated territory is a soldier, played by Cyrus Abidi, also unnamed. The zeal with which she tries to fill up her ballot box with as many legitimate votes as possible comprises the bulk of the movie.

The structure means that the film is necessarily episodic, a series of encounters with possible voters, so there's not a lot of dramatic drive; but it's entertaining nonetheless, in large measure because of the contrast between the two central figures. There's an obvious tension between bullets and ballots: some potential voters are scared off by the man with the gun, others see him as the muscle of the operation, an unspoken threat to comply with the authorities. The soldier himself sees it as just another day at the office—he seems jaded about his work and his country, and bears some cinematic kinship with Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail.

The inspector's Jeffersonian faith in the democratic process can be deeply touching at times—her belief in the efficacy of government to do good, to, say, bring running water to the people in the most remote portions of the country. She frequently nudges over that line, however, and seems to have an almost missionary zeal to collect votes—sort of a Muslim Reese Witherspoon in Election—or basically seems to be uttering those words that have sent shudders down the spine of many an American: "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." Her fervor even takes her to a well-attended funeral, for that's where the potential voters are—someone remarks to her, with a good amount of accuracy, "Your ballots mean more to you than people."

What's especially well drawn here are the customs and assumptions of the Iranian people—there are women who cannot vote, not merely because they are illiterate, but because they are forbidden even to look at photographs of men other than their husbands; and there are many on the journey who have nothing but disdain for the process. As one fisherman, who doesn't want to take a break from his work to exercise his democratic rights, says to the election agent: "Voting doesn't catch fish."

There's just a hint of flirtation between the agent and the soldier, but the movie wisely steers clear of an unnecessary romantic subplot. It's not a film likely to reshape your views about politics or elections, but it goes a long way toward humanizing the good people of Iran, and illuminating our common humanity.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: A very impressive transfer, aided by the fact that most of the movie plays out in master shots—it's very home-video friendly. Colors are deep and rich, giving a stark sense of the Iranian landscape, and fleshtones are well reproduced.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The 5.1 track offers great contrasts between activity and silence, and just a small amount of ambient noise and hiss compromise the aesthetic choices at work on the sound mix. Also, I'm sure it helps in impressing me that I don't speak a word of Farsi.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring Not One Less, The Road Home
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Nothing here but chapter stops and some trailers.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

A smart, serene, small-scale film, Secret Ballot succeeds admirably well at making its political points without being overbearing, and in presenting a candid, warm view of the citizens of one of the world's most vilified nations.


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